The information technology sector is not another minor, ordinary, banal component of an economy, like manufacturing garden furniture or selling ice cream. As should now be obvious to all, IT, including telecommunications as a crucial element, has now emerged as one of the essential factors in economic growth, among rich and poor alike.
Taking an example of the latter, the Palestinian economy is not doing well in this respect, according to IT and telecom expert, Sam Bahour. A Ph.D. candidate researching telecommunications in Palestine, Bahour affirms that, as telecommunications is the heartbeat of any economy's IT sector, Palestinian IT "is in coronary arrest."
Based in Palestine, he laments that "after three years of continuous awareness and educational campaigns by sector professionals, sector associations, the World Bank, the European Commission, USAID and countless international experts, the sector's strategy is just as blurred as it was when the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) was first established."
Nevertheless, IT in Palestine has great potential, if only because of the country's emphasis on education and the relatively large numbers of graduates in various technology fields. However, if real progress in the sector is not seen soon, the potential for Palestine to retain its important IT human resources or recruit Diaspora IT skills will fade.
Palestine missed out in the industrialization of the 1970s and 80s, due in large part to the Israeli occupation. Palestinians cannot now afford to fall behind in the Information Age due to their own apathy or misguided ness.
Building a vibrant IT sector in Palestine was, and still is, a dream that many like Bahour want to realize. To date, however, this remains iffy. A national IT strategy funded by the World Bank has been two years in the making and is now delayed for over a year, without an end in sight. In any case, the private sector has the power to move the sector along, but to do so a telecom strategy needs to be well defined and acted upon.
Palestine has an even more dire need for these missing components of development given upcoming statehood. With statehood, imminent or otherwise, will come an economic boom no less significant than that following the establishment of the PNA in 1993.
Are Palestinians ready to set up an IT sector for the economy to benefit from? To put this sector on the fast track, and knowing that IT touches the growth of most of the rest of the economy, telecommunications in Palestine must benefit from official attention to help it find a proper direction.
To that end, the requirements for upcoming statehood are crucial. Can the current Palestinian telecom network handle a sudden rise of 15 percent in population or 25 percent in tourism, etc.?
Can these and many other big changes be handled if opportunities are not opened up via proper IT sector strategies?
The Palestinian IT sector needs a clear strategy to be developed so that other parts of the economy can align themselves appropriately. This is an obligation of the government, not an option. At the same time, independent regulation of the telecom sector is not a slogan it is a necessity.
In Palestine, the time for professional regulation of telecommunications is overdue.
The economic benefit of proper IT cannot be overestimated, as is evident from looking at rich, developed countries.
IT has accounted for about thirty percent of economic growth in the current boom in the United States, although people directly working in IT only make up around eight percent of US employment. The government there has done what it should: provide the conditions and give people the tools to make the most of IT, including a fresh telecom law, doubling federal investment in education and training, and dramatically increasing basic research.
The response has been dramatic: for example, in 1992, about 11 percent of American schools were connected to the Internet; today, over 95 percent are connected, with the 100 percent target extremely close.
The US education system is a case in point of a positive response to the IT revolution. Training new teachers to use technology in the classroom, so that they are not repeatedly embarrassed by their students knowing more than they do, is becoming more important in the US, as are classes in website design and video production.
Nevertheless, some people and places have been left behind in this phenomenal new economy, even within America as well as, of course, in the Third World. Bahour says that in the US alone, the number of new Internet users every six days amounts to the total population of Palestine, where there are a mere 20,000 or so users.
That is the digital divide: the growing gap between those who have the tools and skills and motivation to succeed in the new economy, and those who are not yet fully participating in the information age.
The irony of course is that the new information economy has the potential to expand the circle of opportunity rather than allowing the digital divide to widen the lines of division in education and income. The right kind of public-private partnership, not links based on corruption and cronyism, seems to provide the framework and tools that will enable the private sector to do the job. However, this sort of cooperation still seems to be lacking in places like Palestine.
What about the rest of the region? The picture is mixed: Egypt seems to be on the right track, as it drastically reduces lease line rates to increase Internet usage by relaxing costs to Internet service providers, but in some other parts of the Arab world, IT and telecom in particular are not getting the right kind of attention from the state.
Progress in the IT sector in Palestine and elsewhere will not happen easily without government action to help create the right environment, including that for telecom in particular. Such issues deserve to be taken more seriously, given major development challenges facing the Palestinian people. — ( Jordan Times )
By Riad al Khouri
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)